Why Living Abroad Is Tied to Higher Creativity

Instead of driving to work, you may commute via scooter if you move to another country. (Photo: RossHelen/Shutterstock)

Creative thinking is no longer the exclusive territory of those in the arts and sciences. The ability to solve problems in new ways, think outside the box, and still get a job done, are skills that all types of businesses and nonprofit organizations want in their workers. Indeed, rather than a knowledge-based economy, it might be more accurate to say that we are all now living in a creatively minded economy, where new ideas are king (and queen).

In the past, taking the step to live in another country might have been seen as a lark, as something someone serious about their career wouldn't take the time "off" to do. But experience living abroad is now seen as an asset. That's because multiculturalism is linked to creative thinking, and not just anecdotally. A team at the Columbia Business School found empirical evidence that "... exposure to multiple cultures in and of itself can enhance creativity."

Specifically, researchers found: "Overall, the authors found that extensiveness of multicultural experiences was positively related to both creative performance (insight learning, remote association, and idea generation) and creativity-supporting cognitive processes (retrieval of unconventional knowledge, recruitment of ideas from unfamiliar cultures for creative idea expansion)."

But why does living in other places correlate with creativity? It's probably due to the type of challenges that are common when people find themselves outside their home cultures: There's the possibility of negotiating a new language, which can be scary and difficult, but also incredibly rewarding when you are able to communicate with new words. And even if you don't need to learn another tongue, a new culture means adjusting to new ways of living that are different than what you know, which can challenge preconceptions.

In Italy, for instance, breakfast is a different kind of meal than what's typically enjoyed in the U.S., which is different again than what's commonly eaten in Costa Rica. Getting to work might involve learning to drive and negotiating an hour in traffic in the U.S., but in other countries it could mean jumping on a motorbike or taking a train, walking or some combination of modes. Ideas about everything can shift away from home, from what to wear to spiritual services to how much personal space people expect.

Becoming open-minded

woman eating a pastry in the Czech Republic
Once you realize there's more than one way to do things — like eat breakfast — you become more flexible. (Photo: frantic00/Shutterstock)

Once you see other ways of living, it forces you to be more flexible in your thinking. And once you understand — on a practical level — that there is more than one way to commute to work, or worship a god or gods, or eat breakfast, you're unlikely to go back to thinking there's only one way to live. That openness to new ideas and experiences (a key part of what helps someone be more creative) can translate to the work environment, where it could make it easier to see a new way of doing things, or see opportunity in a new area for the company.

Just because you don't have the opportunity to physically live in another culture doesn't mean you still can't take advantage of the benefits that getting outside your worldview can bring.

"Although I have never lived in another country, my intellectual training was deeply multidisciplinary. I split my time between psychology and computer science, and ultimately was trained in the field of cognitive science. This exposure to many different approaches to the same problem had a similar effect as living in another culture," wrote Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, in Fast Company.

His less-traditional training opened him up to ways of thinking that are unlike the training others in his field received, and that conferred some of the same advantages as travel or living abroad.

Markman also suggests that you could meet with people outside your typical cohort as a way of finding mind-expanding cultural experiences. So if you find it impossible to move to another country for logistical reasons, there are some ways you can stay put and still reap some of the benefits of the ex-pat experience — but they all definitely involve getting outside your comfort zone, which is key.